Zhuzhing up Beijing

About a month ago I wrote about what seems to be the more prevalent pronunciation of Beijing, namely that involving the postalveolar voiced fricative [ʒ]. Recently an AP article was written that aims to clear everything up and explain that, in fact the “hard j” sound in English is a closer approximation to the Mandarin pronunciation than the “soft j” sound that I (and others) find so frustrating. The main source of the article is not native Mandarin speakers, but S. Robert Ramsey (whose book on Chinese I mentioned about three years ago). Bill Poser discusses the article on LL.

So, this is all to the good, no? I suppose…but then again, I find I usually pronounce the name of the city Shanghai so that the first vowel is that of hang or fang, not that of father. This despite knowing full well the Mandarin pronunciation (which, as the official language, I would take to be the expected way for a foreigner to say the word, rather than in Shanghainese). In this case, the low mid-vowel is both the more proper and more foreign sounding option, and yet I do not frequently use it (at least, I don’t think I do, unless speaking with, say, a Chinese-speaker). Is Shanghai really that different from Beijing? And this is to say nothing of Seoul (which I render with a single syllable). Maybe I’m just a super-Anglicizer, and in the case of Beijing it happens to work out.

And for some sane arguments in favor of Beizhing, I recommend this entry in Beijing Sounds.

McCawley cited for linguification (by Newmeyer)

A topic of continued interest (primarily by(?) Geoff Pullum) is linguification, or the expression of a particular idea or argument in terms of language. A couple years ago I wrote about one particular type of linguification that often takes the form of

You rarely hear X and Y in the same sentence

and which expresses, basically, X and Y are really different and totally unrelated. In case X is a modifier of Y, then it means Y is anything but properly described by X (e.g., you never hear “politician” and “honest” within three words of each other).

In the June 2008 issue of Language, Frederick (Fritz) Newmeyer writes, in a footnote:

The late Jim McCawley wrote somewhere that he can always pick out theoretical linguists at academic cocktail parties. We are the ones who talk about the Fibonacci sequence, the laws of thermodynamics, and Romance clitic climbing, all in the same sentence.

This reflects what I guessed was a folk theory of discourse, one part of which is the idea that sentences have only a single topic, and that nothing is present in the scope of negation (e.g., “studying Romance clitic climbing clearly has nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics, which is just as well considering that I know nothing about the latter”). This particular form of linguification relies on the idea that if any concepts are mentioned in the same sentence, this indicates at least that the speaker is interested in all three topics, and perhaps even that the speaker is somehow arguing for a significant relation between them. (Or perhaps just that they are concept-dropping in order to impress their colleagues).

Living with a soft j

I suppose I shouldn’t really care that nearly every time someone one the news utters the name of the capital city of China, they use a “soft j” (aka [ʒ]), rather than the standard Mandarin “hard j” ([ʤ] would be the closest sound in English). I mean, it’s not that big a deal, and hyperforeignization is, after all, a fact of linguistic life. Probably serves me right for trying to be bilingual.

[Update: Ben Zimmer's pointer to Bill Poser's similar comments reminded me of another set of cases: pronunciation of Chavez with initial "sh" (as in, say, Cesar Chavez Street (formerly Army St) in San Francisco). The same probably goes for several other cases of "ch" in Spanish (machete anyone?)]

The polysemy of ancient and/or faerie languages

This is not what I promised in an earlier post, but the topic is basically the same.

Now, I’m not widely read in (epic) fantasy novels, though it is often my preferred genre. Nonetheless, I think I can make a tentative generalization, which is that in any fantasy world where some either exotic or ancient race speaks a language unintelligible to contemporary folk, then there is somehow an inordinate amount of polysemy, connotation, or complexity to the words and sentences involved. Or, alternatively, it is approximately the same amount as in the modern language (usually “English”), but it is highlighted in such a way as to make it seem rather different from anything that might be familiar.

Just to pick a couple examples from Tad William’s book Shadowmarch (which I’m currently in the middle of reading; no spoilers):

The lady’s high house was called Shehen, which meant “Weeping.” Because it was a s’a-Qar word, it meant other things, too–it carried the intimation of an unexpected ending, and a suggestion of the scent of the plant that in the sunlight lands was called myrtle–but more than anything else, it meant “Weeping.”

…all the way down to the thrice-blessed fence that the mortals called Shadowline, and that the Qar themselves called A’shish-Yarrit Sa, which meant “Storm of Silence,” or, with a slightly different intonation of voice or gesture of the hand, “White Thoughts.”

I suppose that the second example is supposed to be significantly different from, say, tonal languages like those found in China and Africa. In this case, we are supposed to understand that the two meanings for A’shish-Yarrit Sa are somehow semantically related (in some deep way incomprehensible to mere humans). Either that, or somehow we’re dealing with a pun, or maybe just some philosophically interesting near-homophony which, perhaps, native speakers of Qar don’t even care about.

Now, this sort of thing is not in and of itself completely horrible. But for me, without an actual system apparent behind the words and their meanings, which could, with time, be discerned by the reader (and yes, this requires many more tokens in the books), it just seems…well, laughable.

Languages in fantasy

Something about language in fantasy novels is bothering me again, though I can’t quite formulate it yet. This is coming from a recent purchase, Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams. It’s sort of an interesting book, publishing-wise. Much (some?) of it was originally published as an online serial (on shadowmarch.com) back in 2002, along with a user forum and other interactive tools. It was a nice experiment, while it lasted.